Have you ever worked at a company plagued with suspicion, insecurity, accusations and disbelief because of a dishonest colleague in your midst? Fortunately most of us haven’t, sadly I am not one of them. In a former workplace I experienced how a colleague was accused – and eventually convicted - of theft and embezzlement. The situation was further compounded by weak and inefficient management.
A dishonest employee is probably an employer`s worst nightmare as any breach of trust involving a colleague has the potential to affect the whole business.
The management's handling of the situation will influence and determine the eventual outcome of the harm inflicted. What type of offence the colleague has committed is, in my opinion, partly irrelevant. The fact that the offender is a trusted colleague, and for some even a close friend, is the biggest challenge.
Being prepared for internal threats is not about creating a culture of suspicion. It is about identifying possible risks, instigating proportionate control measures and creating an adequate contingency plan.
- Make sure the employees know what actions and behaviour are considered unacceptable! Just documenting it in internal guidelines and manuals is not enough. The employees should confirm in writing that they have received, read and understood the rules and the consequences of breaking them. Without a signed confirmation it may prove difficult to remove of a dishonest employee, even if the violation is a crime in the legal sense..
- Identify and adopt appropriate procedures
Established procedures and routines (“this is how we always do this”) normalise the situation and prevent individuals from becoming scapegoats or suspects before evidence is found. An investigation can be conducted in a professional manner that protects both the rights of the employee and the employer.
- Establish a well-documented disciplinary process
You may face a situation where you have to consider immediate suspension or dismissal. The key to good crisis management is creating predefined processes that are familiar to everyone. A colleague put it this way: “It's too late to learn to waltz five minutes before the ball”. The employees should know what a disciplinary process entails, who will be involved, what activities will be undertaken as well as the rights of the individual and the organisation
Failure to apply sanctions as a consequence of a breach will, in all probability, backfire on you. In this example the management chose to move the employee to a different department which had the unintended effect of providing my colleague with opportunities to commit new and more serious offences. This is a not uncommon solution employed by managers whereby the problem is moved and not confronted.
This is problematic for several reasons. At worst, you are enabling an offender to continue on his or her path. The employer of an acquaintance of mine chose, when faced with a similar situation, to reach settlement with the offender rather than reporting the incident. The person walked out the door with a severance package and a letter of recommendation, free to proceed with his very serious criminal activity. He quickly became a new employer’s problem.
Moreover, covering up, albeit with good intent, internal breaches is terrible crisis management, especially considering business reputation. If such procedures are revealed, it will not paint a pretty picture of the organisation, and the media will have good reasons to address the issue in a negative manner. That is exactly what happened at my former workplace. Negative media coverage severely damaged the reputation of the company and was an added burden on all of us. We quickly became “the talk of the town”.
Finally, the lack of consequences can have major internal repercussions: Why should anyone follow the rules if breaking them has no consequences? Ultimately, it will damage your legitimacy as a leader. Your way of handling the issue will serve as a reference for years to come.
Take care of your business and your employees
Appreciate your employee’s strong desire for information. When their workplace is a party to such a delicate situation, the employees will feel that they are a party themselves. To handle this correctly, you must maintain a finely tuned balance between what you convey and what you withhold to protect the suspect’s rights.
We all have a fundamental aversion against ratting out a colleague. You must challenge attitudes based on camaraderie and internal culture. In a situation like this, it is necessary to be a leader- you cannot act like a friend. Your concern for the rest of the organisation must be apparent, all the while maintaining the interests and rights of the suspect.